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An inside look with Global Champions Tour's Youngest Rider

Atena Santos-Schnieder for Life Equestrian

Meet Atena Santos who is 11 years old and the youngest rider to be competing in the Global Champions Tour, Yes, you're reading this right, she is 11 years old. One of the traits that I love about Atena, besides her incredible riding ability, is her care and love for the horses, they are the number one priority. I had the opportunity to connect with Aetna and her mom, Barbara to learn more about her decision to get into the big ring at such a young age...

When did you start riding and when did you realize that you wanted to be a competitive rider in the GCT?

I started riding when I was 8 years old back in Florida when my parents realized horses where not just a passing girl’s love for me. I remember the day I got my first pony. I felt I finally could start what I came to this Earth to do.

Today, 3 years later, I realize it is not usual to have a well defined Life Goal at such a young age, but I also see that we, the kids, are not always given the opportunity to develop it as we are “expected” to figure it out later in life. Even though this is true for some, it is not necessarily true for every kid and so I feel fortunate that my mom took me seriously and gave me this chance for a head start in life toward my dreams. This is the secretly the reason I want to make my story wildly known, so I can inspire kids and parents alike.

Once I realized that Documenting my journey on SM could inspire kids and parents, I asked mom to help me with it and so she did. In October we launched my IG and FB accounts:

My FB page which is more of a detailed journal about my journey to the Olympics. It also is my academic playground when it comes to the written word and the development of my communication skills, whereas the @atena_santos_schneider IG account is more where I interact daily with my people and make friends, while mom’s IG account @barbara_schneider_me is the mature view of my story.

Talking about education, Mom made it clear from the beginning that my riding career and my education had to go hand in hand and grow at the same rate. That is why I maintain an A+ score as 8 grader at 11 years old.

Atena Santos-Schnieder for Life Equestrian

When my trainer suggested it to me, I had no clue what it meant. Up till then I had shown at smaller shows in the US and at some national events in Mexico but never had even seen an International Event of this magnitude, let alone participating in one. I said yes!

The road to the LGCT is a story in itself. Up until the day before, I did not know if my horse Zorro, was going to be able to make it as he got injured at a prior show and was recovering from it. Those two weeks leading up to the LGCT, were the most intense so far. I rode as many horses my trainer could throw at me, in case Zorro would not make it in time.

Looking back, I can now say that the search for a horse to ride in the LGCT, was a huge boost to my performance because it forced me, out of necessity, to refine my aids in order to communicate clearly with any horse. It was the day before the beginning of the Longines Global Champions Tour that the vet cleared my house Zorro for the Event. I was over the moon for it, both because we are partners, and because I thought he deserved to be in the spotlight for all he has given me so far.

I still took a mare we selected in the process, so I ended up participating with two horses which was a bonus!”

Did I feel intimidated by being the youngest rider at the LGCT?

I think it was after the event that I was told I was the youngest, so it did not really play emotionally on me. What I can say is how amazing it felt to be amongst the greatest riders in the world. It really fueled my desire to be one be one of them one day.

I saw my idol Beezie Madden in the most intimate moments of a rider's life, those moments no one sees and are private to the pair only. I saw her interacting with her horses, her team,…I stood next to her warming up in the international paddock and I saw her show.

By the time it was my turn to show, the 1.15 cm ( 3.77ft) bars seemed smaller, the course looked perfect, my mind forgot that I only ever showed at that hight once, and the crowd suddenly disappeared. I became one with my horse, in a world that was just ours. When the crowd erupted, and the speaker voice finally registered to my ear, I realized my little self and my giant horse managed a clear round.

Coming through the Longines arch was another special moment because there was my trainer, Fabian Sejanes, with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen him ware!

When it came time to enter the arena again, this time aboard Caretina (Owned by Salvador Lopéz) who was kindly offered to me for the occasion, I was ready again. The plan with her was different of course, for I only had ridden her twice before. While with Zorro I went for the best classical mount I could manage, with her, I went for the best clear round I could get, and so we did!

How do you choose your horses to compete with?

After the Longines, my trainer decided I was ready to start learning how to produce a young horse.

It was time for me to part from beloved horse Tequila, with whom I went from the training hight to the 1.10 cm (3.6 ft),to make room for a young horse. And so it was that I arrived home from the LGCT to an empty stall. That was the hardest thing I experienced so far and I still grieve it but I keep myself busy with Iblesse, my new 6 years old horse who is already making me proud.

Atena Santos-Schnieder for Life Equestrian

Zorro is still my number one horse and I will be doing the FEI Children in 6 days with him. My trainer has not yet told me if we are going to compete in the bronze or silver division, but that is another story for another time!

So to answer your question, choosing a horse is still the job of my trainer Fabian Sejanes, who I admire profoundly. If I could describe him in a paragraph I would say that his passion and deep understanding for the horses and our sport translates into his ability to hand over knowledge to produce the best riders and horses possible. I also love how he could see past my age and took me on as an athlete.

What is your favorite moment to date in the show ring?

I must say it was the hug I shared with Zorro finishing our course in the LGCT, right before we took in the crowd’s cheers and my parents joy for my achievement.

What's some advice you would offer someone who is looking to start competing in the LGCT?

"More than the LGCT itself which eventually is an Event every rider aspires to participate in at some point in their career, my advice would be to never let oneself be stopped by any barrier but rather convert them into opportunities.”

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I will be 16 by then and if things go accordingly to plan, I will be a high school graduate who is showing Internationally (hopefully for my Country) before starting College.

Follow Atena's Journey @atena_santos_schneider

Photography by @nicolefholmes

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